Murder in America: A History

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Overview

This book is the first serious study of the history of criminal homicide in America, reaching from precolonial times to the age of the O. J. Simpson trial. Noted historian Roger Lane provides this much-needed overview of the history of murder and our culture's responses to it. Lane demonstrates that the study of murder can provide important clues about the way society actually works, its fears and tensions, its concept of justice, and the value it places on different kinds of human life. Roger Lane simply asks the same questions of the past that we ask of the present: What causes murder rates to go up or down? How efficiently or fairly has the justice system worked in dealing with homicide? What are or have been the roles of economic difference and family structure, of the courts and the media, of the Wild West and the urban Industrial Revolution, of Indian warfare and African-American slavery? But if the questions are familiar, Lane shows us that the answers cannot be fitted neatly into boxes we now label either "liberal" or "conservative." They will surprise most readers.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Cahners\\Publishers_Weekly
To understand murder is to understand ourselves since "we all share the capacity to destroy ourselves and each other," writes Lane. While war is the leading subject of traditional history, he finds that historians have only newly turned in the direction of criminal homicide. In the first title in Ohio State's "History of Crime and Criminal Justice Series," Lane (Violent Death in the City) attempts an ambitious overview encompassing medieval England, the 1622 massacre at a Virginia settlement, and familiar and unfamiliar murders up to the 1990s. The story of homicide is set inside the wider history of American violence: riots, lynchings, assassinations, revolutionary political groups, and the turmoil of the '60s. Lane examines degrees of punishment, the effectiveness of the justice system, advances in forensic science and compares legal theory with practice. Unfortunately, the huge scope of this project has resulted in only cursory glimpses at even the most fascinating and celebrated cases. One example is that of University of Chicago student William Heirans which is important both as the first use of "truth serum" in a criminal case and also as the inspiration for Charles Einstein's novel The Bloody Spur, Fritz Lang's film While the City Sleeps and Lucy Freeman's memorable psychological portrait of Heirans, Before I Kill Again. The case itself garners a little over a page, and the cultural artifacts receive little or no notice. One footnote: along with his infamous manifesto, Unabomber suspect Theodore Kaczinsky expressed his worried concern that his excessive use of quotations from Lane's earlier writings might be in violation of copyright laws.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
To understand murder is to understand ourselves since "we all share the capacity to destroy ourselves and each other," writes Lane. While war is the leading subject of traditional history, he finds that historians have only newly turned in the direction of criminal homicide. In the first title in Ohio State's "History of Crime and Criminal Justice Series," Lane (Violent Death in the City) attempts an ambitious overview encompassing medieval England, the 1622 massacre at a Virginia settlement, and familiar and unfamiliar murders up to the 1990s. The story of homicide is set inside the wider history of American violence: riots, lynchings, assassinations, revolutionary political groups, and the turmoil of the '60s. Lane examines degrees of punishment, the effectiveness of the justice system, advances in forensic science and compares legal theory with practice. Unfortunately, the huge scope of this project has resulted in only cursory glimpses at even the most fascinating and celebrated cases. One example is that of University of Chicago student William Heirans which is important both as the first use of "truth serum" in a criminal case and also as the inspiration for Charles Einstein's novel The Bloody Spur, Fritz Lang's film While the City Sleeps and Lucy Freeman's memorable psychological portrait of Heirans, Before I Kill Again. The case itself garners a little over a page, and the cultural artifacts receive little or no notice. One footnote: along with his infamous manifesto, Unabomber suspect Theodore Kaczinsky expressed his worried concern that his excessive use of quotations from Lane's earlier writings might be in violation of copyright laws. (May)
Booknews
A study of criminal homicide in America from precolonial times to the present, drawing on accounts of witnesses, official documents, physical remains, and private papers to reconstruct representative cases of the past and look for broader trends. Investigates why murder rates go up or down at different periods, how the justice system has dealt with murder, and the roles of economic difference, family structure, and media, seeking to explain why postindustrial America has the highest murder rate in the developed world. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Lawrence M. Friedman
There is an enormous literature on crime and punishment, past and present-- people are, after all, fascinated by murder and other dark deeds, whenever they occurred; but not much of the historical work is rigorous and systematic. The work of Roger Lane constitutes one of the outstanding exceptions, notably his illuminating studies of crime and violence in 19th century Philadelphia. Now he has published a more general book, MURDER IN AMERICA: A HISTORY. It is the first scholarly treatment of this particular subject. That would in itself make the book important. But it is also a very fine piece of work. In one way, the title is misleading. This is more than a history of murder in the technical sense-- that is, a history of those homicides that would be defined as "murder" by the legal system (as opposed to manslaughter, killing in self-defense, and so on). It would be more accurate to say that the book is a history of intentional killing in America, though I can understand why author and publisher would prefer a jazzier title. Lane covers a lot more ground than "ordinary" murder. He adds, for example, capital punishment (deliberate killing by the state) and the death toll in various wars. He also takes into account police killings, casualties in riots and labor disputes, massacres of Indian tribes, vigilante killings, and the work of lynch mobs. Thus, besides the usual suspects, we read about the killing of whites and Indians during King Philip's War (17th century), in which both sides were guilty of indiscriminate slaughter; the mob attack on St. Philip de Neri's Church, in Philadelphia, in the 1840's, which, when the smoke cleared, left two soldiers and thirteen civilians dead; the work of Quantrill's Raiders, who "burned the town of Lawrence [Kansas] in 1863 and murdered all its male inhabitants" (p. 173); the shoot-out deaths of Jesse James and John Dillinger; the execution of the Rosenbergs for treason during the cold war; and many other people and situations, which a more conventional account would have left out. Statistics on homicides, especially historical statistics, are weak. Records, where they exist, are fairly unreliable. Historians have to make do with bits and fragments-- coroners' reports and the like. Obviously, Lane's conception of the subject muddies these waters even more. It is hard enough to be systematic about homicide rates; and when you throw in the other forms of intentional killings, the difficulties are compounded. Nonetheless, Lane's conception of the subject is more than defensible-- it gives us a richer, more nuanced, more complete study of American deadly violence than would otherwise be the case. The killers that parade through these pages are a colorful and varied lot: soldiers and vigilantes; men who kill out of jealousy and rage; brutal policemen; women who smother their babies at birth; homicidal maniacs and zealots; celebrity killers and (more numerous by far) obscure, lonely, tormented souls. Killers are of every race, and every station in life. But MOST killings, past and present, are the work of "unemployed or underemployed young men" (p. 126). Such men "have always organized themselves into gangs, strutting like peacocks and fighting like roosters" (p. 104). The modal killing comes out of this feisty cohort, and originates in some brawl, incident, or fight that turns lethal. Most killers have lacked "anything resembling a calculated motive" (p. 127); they kill out of impulse or jealousy or a perverted sense of honor. The same holds for most domestic murders. The peacocks and roosters may be a historical constant--Lane thinks there has always been a corps of young men spoiling for a fight. Yet homicide rates have gone up and down. Mostly, in fact, down: medieval England had staggering rates of homicide, much higher than anything in American experience. The tumultuous social changes of the 19th century somehow had a dampening effect on lethal violence--at least on the kind of killing that got you in trouble with the police (lynching a black man or shooting an Indian mostly did not). Lane connects this "civilizing" effect with better policing, and with the discipline of an industrial age--the rhythms of work and the need for self-control, the demand for "regular, predictable, cooperative behavior," of the kind that "made the trains and trolleys run and kept great crowds... moving peacefully to and from work, every day" (p. 184). In the 20th century, there was a homicide bulge in the 1920's; and then a rapid decline, to something on the order of 4.5 murders per 100,000 population. A new surge started around 1960, and it more than doubled the homicide rate. Since the 1970's, the rate has been fairly flat, but on a rather high plateau. In the last few years, a decline in some cities has given police chiefs and mayors a grand opportunity to pat themselves on the back. But we still suffer from rates vastly higher than those of other Western countries. Lane takes the story right up to the present; and he does not shy away from trying to explain WHY American homicide rates are so high. He rejects, as he should, accounts, which lean too heavily on some single factor. Poverty, demography, a plague of guns all play a role. But in the end he puts emphasis on a cultural explanation--killing results above all from the persistence of a destructively macho code, "in which to tolerate any kind of 'dishonor' without fighting was to lose the reputation for manhood." This code was particularly virulent in the south; and one of the reasons for the high homicide rates among black men is precisely this "southern heritage." Moreover, in the south, until recently, violence "directed at whites was punished savagely, violence directed at blacks ... was not." Since the law "was no help," disputes had to be settled "directly, often physically" (p. 351). Lane also points a finger of blame at slavery, as one of the mainsprings of this perverted culture of violence. Slavery was a system rooted in force; there was a "daily need to assert personal dominance" which reinforced the deadly code. The code was a white code, then, but it infected blacks as well. In the final paragraph of the book, Lane refers to slavery as "our version of original sin;" the epidemic of murders is "part of the price we pay for it" (p. 353). Lane's explanatory apparatus seems to suggest that the murder rate is, and will continue to be, rather intractable. There are a good many people who think otherwise; and they can point to what has happened in the last few years to back them up. My own view is that it is far too early to tell whether the police chiefs or the skeptics are right. One point, however, does seem clear. There has been a dramatic improvement in Lane's larger picture--a decline in many of the other forms of intentional killing. Capital punishment is still around (especially in Texas); but killing by the police has declined. There are certainly hate crimes, including murder; but they are scattered events, not systematic or genocidal. Lynching is gone; and the bombings and killings of civil rights workers of the 1950s and 1960's is ancient history; murder "as social policy" in the south became "bankrupt" with the success of the civil rights movement (p. 264). "Ethnic cleansing" is not unknown to American history (as the native peoples can attest); but those days, too, seem to be over. There is a wealth of information in this book. The work is careful, thorough, and as rigorous as the subject and our feeble stock of data permit. I also found Lane's interpretations and explanations on the whole persuasive. Not everyone will, of course, agree. But Lane certainly makes the case for attention to history-- the time-dimension could greatly enrich the debates among criminologists and others about the causes and cures of violent crime. There is material, too, to fuel the debates on state-sanctioned killing, though Lane has less to say at the end about causes and cures than he does about other kinds of murder. All and all, this is really good work: thoughtful, insightful, illuminating. It fills a real gap in the literature. I had very few bones to pick, some of them trivial (does Lane really think Lizzie Borden was innocent?). A more serious problem is weak and sketchy annotation. Lane has read widely and researched broadly; but he does not share his erudition with the reader. There are no footnotes or endnotes; there is a short list of books consulted for each chapter, but this list is obviously incomplete, and sometimes not very helpful. I appreciate the fact that Lane wanted his book to be readable and accessible. But it is also a book for specialists, and the specialists need more of the usual help than somebody (whether Lane or his publisher) was willing to give. Lane's MURDER IN AMERICA, nonetheless, is essential reading for all serious students of crime, social history, and law.
Kirkus Reviews
A survey of murder in America from colonial times until the present.

Lane (Social Science/Haverford Coll.) begins his study in medieval England, hardly a peaceful age: The murder rate is estimated to have been about 20 per 100,000 people, which is double the current rate in the US. Murder then was largely an act perpetrated by men, working in pairs, robbing others of low caste. Punishment was harsh and public. When the English began to emigrate to America in large numbers, they brought with them the punitive laws that had been in place for centuries in their homeland, but they also brought old traditions of violence. While the murder rate was, at first, quite low in America's scattered settlements, the country's expansion was soon mirrored by a growing trend toward violence—and toward a new kind of violence. Murders began crossing class boundaries. In addition, the climate of violence was fueled by slaveowners, who could kill slaves with impunity for "corrective" purposes, and by the murder of Indians, which went largely unchecked. Lane paints a fascinating and frightening picture of America as it lurched its way to the 20th century. He hypothesizes that as the nation began its recovery from the Civil War and leapt into industrialization, the quick pace of social change led inevitably to an increased murder rate. Its antiquated code of honor clashing with life after slavery, the South was a hotbed of homicide, with white-on-white killings reaching the astounding rate of 30 per 100,000 in some counties; lynchings were common and public. Violence at present, Lane reports, is by contrast committed by individuals and often centers on the family. Lane also briefly discusses the dawn of the serial killer and explores why the suicide rate increase when the murder rate decreases.

A vivid portrait of the long history of American homicide, thoroughly researched and of interest to both the academic and general reader.

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Product Details

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction: The Historian as Detective 1
1 The British Background 9
2 The Colonial Era, 1607-1776 33
3 The American Revolution and the Early Republic, 1776-1829 67
4 The Antebellum Decades and the Civil War, 1829-1865 92
5 The Civil War to World War I, 1865-1917 146
6 World War I to World War II, 1917-1941 214
7 World War II to the Vietnam War, 1941-1963 249
8 The Sixties, 1963-1974 268
9 Murder in Contemporary America, 1974 to the Present: A Historical Perspective 304
Select Bibliography 355
Index 367
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